In the early ’90s, I taught English in Kyoto, Japan. I was in my 20s, and due to my age and lifestyle, I spent a lot of time with Japanese university students.
By day, I was a grammar instructor at Bukkyo University, and in the evenings, I taught conversational English at a private language institute where most of the students were university kids.
Late evenings I was a bartender in the nightlife-rich Kawaramachi neighborhood, where I practiced my conversational Japanese.
At that time, Japanese students were a fun and experimental group. While this description may fit kids of a certain age in most cultures, at that time in Japan, there was a near-explicit social contract that allowed for university years to be particularly carefree.
Getting into university was challenging — entrance exams were notoriously demanding for high school students — and once you graduated from university, a lifetime of employment was almost guaranteed for hard-working “office ladies” and “salary men.”
College itself was easy and a time of leisure and experimentation for most students I knew. Failing out was almost unheard of — as a teacher, I was encouraged to pass all of my students, even those who rarely (or never) showed up to class.
There was a mostly-unspoken understanding that university years were a time of self-expression and play in exchange for a life of work pushing the incredible postwar economic engine forward.
I loved my time in Japan and got to know many of these kids quite well.
We played music together, got drunk, went to clubs, talked about art and philosophy. They grew their hair long; went goth, hippie or punk; and generally enjoyed life. But inevitably in their senior year, I would see their lives start to change drastically.
Life for university seniors shifted in focus from fun to securing a lifetime job. Jeans and dyed hair gave way to conservative suits and briefcases. I was dismayed to see the light go out of their eyes as once-joyful kids got very serious, but I understood.
Falling through the cracks in any society can be difficult, but in the regimented Japanese society, the cracks were easy to fall through and near impossible to climb back out of.
In ʼ93, things began to change though.
The Japanese economy had been bad since ʼ89, but in ʼ93, hiring levels dropped drastically, and many students weren’t able to get any job after graduation. And the kids who didn’t get a job that year knew they’d be behind new graduates the following year, since they’d be viewed with suspicion by hiring managers.
What happened next blew me away.
Rather than disappearing into jobs as they had in previous years, these kids kept coming back to the language institute. As a place that served as a kind of clubhouse for many students, it was familiar and safe.
They always came to the school as much for the differing cultural perspectives and camaraderie as they did for the language instruction. But now that they were out of university and out of work, they needed these things even more. They needed help with reinvention and a sense of purpose.
These kids who were seemingly cut out of the expected societal path started to make interesting and unusual career decisions. Some started bands while others started restaurants or other kinds of businesses.
In short, they got creative.
WHY THIS MATTERS NOW
During this pandemic, professions we once thought optional or lower status are now appearing essential.
Jobs in health care, delivery, logistics, manufacturing, janitorial work at hospitals, trash collection, and law enforcement are traditionally not highly compensated. But doing without them now is unthinkable. And bankers, stockbrokers, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and real estate developers are not quite as valuable to society as they once were.
And just like society is reevaluating what is valuable, so, too, we all can take a hard look at what we consider valuable for ourselves. As traditional career paths dry up, creativity becomes essential instead of optional.
As 401Ks lose value and savings disappear and as many in our society face even more acute need than they did before, it’s essential that we reinvent our careers and our economies.
The good news is that constraints generate creativity — and now we have more constraints than ever. I learned this idea as a newspaper designer forced to work in black and white for years. Or as some innovation researchers note, “Constraints can foster innovation when they represent a motivating challenge and focus efforts on a more narrowly defined way forward.”
As we emerge from this crisis, it will be necessary for many of us to reinvent our careers. One of my friends in Japan started to work in a restaurant, and then started his own and eventually got married, had kids, and now runs a small farm in the countryside, and by all accounts, lives a happy, healthy, and calm lifestyle still.
In this time of crisis, I’ve been asking myself a few questions and spending real time considering the layers of the answers.
What does the world need?
What am I capable of?
How can I help?
I find the answers to all three of these questions are becoming more clear as constraints increase. A good life is quite simple in many ways. It involves staying connected to others, taking care of yourself and those you love, and doing your best to help out where you can.
Times are certainly going to be hard moving forward, but there is always a way for us to help each other. And helping each other is the essence of value.
We’ve learned recently that markets don’t value essential workers (like those in delivery or sanitation), or excess capacity (of hospital beds, PPE, or vaccine production) very well.
Real value is about humans helping humans. Whether or not markets are able to assign an accurate value to this help says more about the design of the market than the value given.
In these times, I encourage us all to get back to basics and do our best to use our skills to help each other — especially those with less access than we have ourselves. This doesn’t just mean volunteering our time or donating our money — though those things are important. It does mean examining what is essential and what is not.
I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about your own value now. Please share in the comments.